Responding to a Sleight in Michael Allen’s Book, Sanctification: The Torrances and Charles Partee as Calvin Scrubs

I am continuing to read Michael Allen’s new book, Sanctification. I am going to register a little gripe in regard to what might seem nit-picky, but it bothered me; it’s a rather nerdy-editorial observation, but it says something to me—and I think that’s an intentional move by Allen. Here he is discussing John Calvin’s double grace (duplex gratia), and how Calvin fits in with other theological standouts of his time, following his time, and the post reformed orthodox theology that developed later in the 16th and 17th centuries respectively. Before we hear from Allen, in case you’re unaware, there has been no small debate about Calvin and the Calvinists, and their relationship (or not). Richard Muller has spent substantial amounts of time arguing that there is material theological continuity between Calvin’s inchoate theology (relative to what would be developed later), then, and what post reformed orthodoxy (or “Calvinism”) developed later. You can see Allen’s tip of the hat to the Mullerian argument here, and how he wants to make it appear that the opponents of Muller et al. are less than directed by primary texts in their own engagement with Calvin (which they argue that there is discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists). Allen writes:

There have been historiographic debates as of late regarding the way that Calvin’s theology of union with Christ is or is not similar to Luther’s, Melanchthon’s, and the Lutheran confessions’, and whether it is or is not consistently developed by later reformed theologians, such as those federal divines who prepared the Westminster Standards in the seventeenth century. Mark Garcia and others in the so-called “Gaffin School” have argued that Calvin and the Lutheran tradition offer markedly different approaches to union with Christ, and that Calvin in no way identifies justification as a cause for sanctification. James Torrance, Thomas Torrance, and Charles Partee, among others, argue that Calvin was not faithfully followed by later Calvinists, who failed to maintain his focus on union with Christ. And yet, leading scholars of Reformation and post-Reformation theology on just these doctrines—in particular, J. Todd Billings, J.V. Fesko, and Richard A. Muller—have argued at length from primary sources that both dichotomies are false. Calvin stood alongside Lutherans (like Melanchthon, in particular) in affirming the priority of justification as well as the necessity of sanctification; and Calvin’s insistence on union with Christ as the context for the double grace was developed in a faithful or continuous way by later federal theologians (and in the Westminster Standards). We do well, mindful of those debates, to look at the wider theological context of Calvin’s theology.[1]

Not so fast. Do you notice what Michael does? He stacks the deck in his favor, and sleights his opponents. In other words, as he mentions the Torrances, Partee, and some amorphous others (whoever they might be), he doesn’t actually provide any sort of bibliographic information on them; you know, so we all could go and see if this is so (what he asserts about them). He also contrasts them with his scholars who “have argued at length from primary sources,” making it appear that Partee, the Torrances, et al. are not “leading scholars” themselves. Let’s just focus on Charles Partee by himself; Partee is a true blue Calvin scholar who has written treatises on the theology of John Calvin—in other words, he is just as much a Calvin scholar as the folks that Allen appeals to (and a senior one to boot!).

As a reader, a critical one, this does not play well with me; it is far from being persuasive, for example, and makes it appear that Allen is simply appealing to the people (his). Whether or not what he is arguing, or signaling, is the case or not (in regard to Calvin and the Calvinists) is beside the point. To me it represents poor form to not give us some bibliographic information for the Torrances and Partee, while at the same time providing biblio for his privileged sources. Here’s the bibliographic information he gives us via a footnote after he brings up Billings, Fesko, and Muller:

See esp. J. Todd Billings, “The Contemporary Reception of Luther and Calvin’s Doctrine of Union with Christ: Mapping a Biblical, Catholic, and Reformational Motif,” in Calvin and Luther: The Continuing Relationship, ed. R. Ward Holder (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 158–75; as well has his larger study, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012); and J.V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517–1700) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).[2]

And yet we don’t have a corresponding footnote for material from the Torrances, Partee, or the others that Allen refers us to. The net effect is to make the Torrances, Partee, et al. look like mere scrubs compared to the venerable sources Allen elevates as the “leading scholars.” This is at best an oversight, but since I don’t think Allen would make such an oversight, I’d have to say it’s an intentional sleight towards the Torrances, Partee, et al. All I can say is: What the?!

There is obviously some intramural banter taking place here, and Allen lets us know exactly where he lines up. It’s not surprising at this point, he’s already taken other swipes at the Torrances, The Evangelical Calvinists (like our book[s]), et al. But his form here is poor, I think. At least let people know what Partee, the Torrances, et al. have produced in their own right in regard to the scholarship in this area; and don’t make it appear that, again, they are just the scrubs who really don’t know what they’re talking about (i.e. avoid genetic fallacies, poisoning the well, and other types of fallacies).

[1] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 174.

[2] Ibid., 174-5 n16.

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90 Posts on John Calvin in Remembrance of the 500 Year Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

Since the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is upon us this October 31st, the day that Martin Luther nailed his infamous indulgence theses to the Wittenberg door in Germany on 1517, I thought I would point you to the blog writing I’ve done on my favorite second generation reformer, John Calvin. My last post pointed you to the man himself, Martin Luther; this post introduces you to the 90 posts I’ve written on John Calvin. For Protestant Christians, even for Anabaptists at some level, we’d have to say that at least Luther, if not Calvin, represent kind of church fathers for us; insofar as they started the ball rolling towards the theologies that have developed since October 31st, 1517. I know many Anabaptists would be repulsed by the suggestion that they have any association at all with Calvin or Luther, particularly Calvin, given his overt and explicit dislike of the Anabaptists. But again, in a seminal type of way I think it would be hard pressed to disavow the idea that even the Radical Reformation would ever had taken place without people like Luther and Calvin; in that sense there is, even if it’s a discordant one, a relationship between the magisterial reformers and the radical reformers. But I digress, here are my posts on John Calvin (and yes, some of them are duplicates of each other): Click Here

Getting Past the Caricatures of Calvin: Calvin the ‘in Christ’ Participatory Theologian

John Calvin often gets caricatured for a variety of reasons; the unfortunate thing about such caricatures is they keep people from benefiting from some very rich theology that he offers in the whole of his oeuvre. What I appreciate most about Calvin’s theology is both his union with Christ (unio cum Christo) and double grace (duplex gratia) motifs. Both emphasize in very Pauline and Christologically rich ways what a good participationist soteriology should look like, and yet most miss this because they get hung up on his thinking in regard to God’s decretive activities, and his doctrine of double predestination (both things I recently critiqued him on through Barth and Torrance in my personal chapter in our EC2 book). But note the following; here in a pretty famous passage from Calvin’s Institutes we see just this kind of participationist emphasis that we might even mistake for some patristic theologian’s offering. Calvin writes:

We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son—not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our Head” [Eph. 4:15], and “the first-born among many brethren” [Rom. 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be “engrafted into him” [Rom. 11:17], and to “put on Christ” [Gal. 3:37]; for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith. Yet since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.[1]

Do you see what I mean? For Calvin, the whole of salvation is accomplished in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (we might even mistake this for Barth or Torrance — but they receive such emphases from Calvin, actually). For Calvin, Justification/Sanctification and ultimately Glorification are all resplendent and present in Jesus Christ; our only hope is to be united to him by the Spirit in the bond of faith.

But if you follow all the caricatures of Calvin’s theology you’ll naively end up thinking that he was the foment of some of the most hideous monstrous theology on planet earth. As the passage above should illustrate you and your caricature would be severely out of place.

Note: I am taking a break from Facebook. This post will automatically feed through to Facebook, so anyone reading this from there, if you’d like to interact, then leave a comment in the thread of this post here at the blog.

[1] Calvin, Institutes 3.1.1.

How John Calvin Found Comfort in Regard to His Physical Frailty and Sicknesses: And Application of that to My Cancer Diagnosis and Human Suffering in General

Sickness, disease, suffering, death, and evil, among other such trifles, are all things that Christians have a capacity to face, before and because of God, with an utter sense of hope and sober trust. Often evil, and all of its attendant realities (including human suffering!), is used as a scalpel to cut God to pieces; leaving him as nothing more than a corpse that the modern person can look at with kind of perverted joy, and yet somber realization that all they are left with is themselves (they’d have it no other way).

John Calvin, pre-modern as he was, was no stranger to human suffering, sickness, and disease. Indeed, as W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee detail in their contribution to our Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2 book, through their chapter entitled Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence, we come to see, with some precision, the scope of suffering that Calvin endured; particularly with regard to his physical health. We see how Calvin dealt with his fragile constitution, coram Deo, by intertwining his theological framework with his interpretation of his own predicament as a broken and ill person. We see how Calvin’s doctrine[s] of predestination, election, Divine Providence, so on and so forth informed the way he attempted to deal with the ostensible problem of suffering, disease, and the brokenness with which he was so familiar.

In an attempt to provide some good context on how Calvin dealt with all of this theologically, I thought I would appeal (at some extensive length) to Hogge’s and Partee’s writing on the matter; and then offer some reflections of my own in light of Calvin’s approach to suffering. I thought I would tie my own experiences of dealing with severe depression, anxiety, doubt of God, and diagnosis of a terminal and incurable cancer into Calvin’s own approach when it comes to God’s Providence and care in these instances. So at length here is a section from Hogge’s and Partee’s chapter (I’m thinking this is actually a section that Partee wrote):

An Alternative Conclusion

Granted the erstwhile power of Calvin’s exposition of God’s almighty providence, this once shining heirloom is tarnished for many in recent generations. If God is the author of everything and evil is clearly something, then simple logic seems to dictate the conclusion that God is responsible for evil. In other words in the light of his strong affirmation of God’s providence, Calvin’s equally strong denial that God is the author of evil is not as convincing as once it was. Obviously, the sweeping philosophical conundrum of the origin and existence of evil (of which physical illness is a painfully personal example) has exercised serious reflection from the beginning with no satisfactory end in sight. Therefore, if a completely satisfactory resolution is unlikely, at least Calvin’s conclusion can be gently modified by his own suggestion.

Among the alternative possibilities for resolution, Calvin did not for a moment consider that God might be limited in nature (as in process theology) or self-limited by choice (as in Emil Brunner)83 or that God’s interest in “soul-making” requires the existence of evil.84 The regnancy of God is unquestioned. Calvin believed all things are governed by God including human free will. We are to understand “that on both sides the will is in God’s power, either to bend the hearts of men to humanity, or to harden those which were naturally tender.”85 In a bold metaphor Calvin even claims that God fights against us with his left hand and for us with his right hand.86 In both events we are in God’s hands.

Two modern, major, and massive theological acquisitions have provoked a climate change of opinion that Calvin could not have anticipated and which require integration into the family heritage. First, a particularly contentious debate over Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture continues to roil his descendants. There is, of course, no gainsaying that Calvin did not feel the impact of the Critical Historical Method, and, while his response to this development cannot be predicted, its adoption by most mainstream biblical scholars today means that the distinction between human and divine in Scripture is less adamantine than Calvin thought. Thus, a biblical citation no longer closes a discussion but opens it to furtherdevelopment.87

The second wider and deeper change concerns the role of reason. The dream of reason in Western intellectual culture stretched from Plato to Spinoza, but the famous wake-up call which sounded from David Hume alarming Immanuel Kant and rousing him from his dogmatic slumbers, leads to the claim that “The Copernican revolution brought about by Kant was the most important single turning point in the history of philosophy.”88 If so, it is now impossible for Western theologians to ignore Kant’s strictures on pure reason to make room for deep faith. Additionally, the necessity and universality of reason has been challenged by anthropological studies of differing cultures and gender studies within the same culture. Moreover, the developing scientific study of the human and animal brain modifies the confidence of Hamlet’s appeal to “godlike reason” (Hamlet IV.4.38).

Calvin’s epistemological reliance on Scripture and reason is an immense and complicated subject on its own.89 He believed the Bible was the divine Word of God but he also noted its human elements. Likewise, Calvin both praised and blamed reason. “Reason is proper to our nature; it distinguishes us from brute beasts.”90 At the same time, because of sin human reason is not able to understand God nor God’s relation to humanity. 91 Therefore, “Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit, and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit.”92 Still at the end of the day, although Calvin rejects “speculation,”93 he thinks there must be a reason for the existence of illnesses, even if we do not know exactly what it is. Among his explanations, Calvin offers the punishment of human sin, God’s hidden will, the malignancy of Satan and the demons, and the evil will of other human beings. According to Calvin, the proper human response to this situation is faith, humility, patience, and so on. Nevertheless, the variety of these explanations does not challenge Calvin’s basic confidence that the divine intellect has its reasons even though they are hidden from us.

An alternative category of “mysteries beyond reason” is sometimes employed by Calvin and should be noted. That is, Calvin affirms many divine things that humans do not, and cannot, know. For example, he admits the existence of sin as “adventitious”94 meaning it has no rational explanation. Calvin did not, but he might have, applied this category to disease suggesting that while medicine seeks to describe “what” and “how,” theology cannot explain its “why.” This situation has some affinity with Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realm leading to the concept of “antinomy”—a category impervious to pure, but not to practical, reason. If then we humans can recognize and treat the penultimate and medical causes of disease, we might admit that we do not understand the “reason” for illness and are not obligated to insist ultimately and theologically that there is one. One might leave the painful puzzle to reason and the trustful victory to faith.

Many contemporary students of Calvin’s theology, both clerical and medical, cannot with best mind and good conscience adopt the obvious conclusion that Calvin draws concerning the existence and meaning of disease. Still, seeking a life of faith, hope, and love, one can appreciate Calvin’s passionate conviction that in neither prosperity nor adversity are we separated from the love of God. Therefore, leaving the study of “material,” “efficient,” and “formal” causes to the scientific community, theologians might come full stop before the “final” causes of illness. Affirming in faith with Calvin God’s good creation and encompassing providence, the impenetrable mystery of assigning a “final cause” for disease might be approached with the modesty and humility which Calvin sometimes evinces.

Following this interlude of thundering silence, theology could resume with the glorious theme of hope in life everlasting and abundant where, delivered from pain and death, all tears are dried, all sorrows past, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, lepers are cleansed—the dead being raised up made alive in Christ.[1]

Following Hogge’s and Partee’s treatment of Calvin, we can see that Calvin himself, because of his historical location, would defy the modern attempt to peer into the ‘abyss’ of God’s secret council when it comes to trying to understand the ‘cause’ of evil, sickness, and disease. But precisely because of Calvin’s location, theologically, he will consistently defer to God’s sovereign hand of providence in the affairs of this world order, and all of us ensconced within it. So while he will not attempt to speculate or press in the type of rationalist ways that moderns might want to; at the same time he rests and trusts in the reality that God is providentially in control of sickness and disease. He doesn’t have the type of scientific acumen that moderns have ostensibly developed, but he rests in the always abiding reality of God’s almighty ability to succor the needs of all of us frail and indolent humans as we inhabit a world of contingencies and ailments not of our own making, per se.

As modern and now “post-modern” people we want more scientifically derived answers than Calvin can offer us. When we get sick, when we suffer immeasurable diseases and anxieties in our apparently cold and chaotic world, we look to the lab-coats to offer us a cure-for-what-ails-us. But for anyone, particularly those of us, who like Calvin, abide in a deep union with God in Jesus Christ, we will most consistently end up right where pre-modern Calvin always ended up; we will repose in God’s faithful care to never leave us or forsake us; we will rest in the reality that God is both sovereign, and that he providentially walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, even more than we realize.

When I was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma (DSRCT), an incurable and terminal cancer for which there is no known treatment, I ended up right where Calvin ended up; I had to simply rest and trust in God’s providential and loving care. I did due diligence, in regard to pursuing all known treatment avenues, both traditionally and alternatively, but at the end of the day, and in every instance, I had to rest in the reality that God was in control. Like Calvin, as Hogge and Partee highlight, I had to find assurance and hope in the fact that the God who I couldn’t control was in control, indeed, of my every waning anxiety and fear; that he was in control of the chaos (the cancer) inside of my body that wanted to consume me like a voracious monster. I did find rest and hope in God’s providential care; not in the abstract, but as God broke into my life moment by moment, every moment of everyday during that season.

While sickness, disease, suffering, evil, and the like might not have an easy answer—as far as causation—what we can rest in, like Calvin did, is the fact that we know the One who is in control; who is in control of what might even look like absolute chaos and destruction upon us. We can rest in the fact that, in Christ, we are in union with an indestructible life that death couldn’t even hold down. This is my comfort in life, even now. I rest in the fact that God in Christ gives me every breath that I breathe, literally; the same breath that the risen Son of God rose with on that Easter morning.

 

[1] W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee, “Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 285-88.

Gannon Murphy On: To truly know God is to love him. Religion and Piety As a Frame for Knowing God

By now you know that our second Evangelical Calvinism book was just released, the full title being: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. But as you also know Myk and I had a volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book published under the title: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (which this subtitle is also attached to our second volume as well). This post will be referencing one of the chapters found in EC1; a chapter written by Gannon Murphy on knowledge of God in John Calvin’s thought.

What I want to focus on, in regard to Gannon’s chapter is his brief but profound development of how the Latin terms religio and pietas function in Calvin’s theological offering when it comes to knowledge of God. As Murphy points out Calvin’s conception of knowledge of God was never a disembodied one; in fact it was more existential. It was never really a philosophical or abstract engagement with some sort of abstract brute conception of a substance that we could correlate through abstract reasoning to the God disclosed in Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ. No, as Murphy argues, for Calvin, knowledge of God was something more akin to knowledge in God; more particularly in Christ. Gannon up-points how the concepts of religio and pietas functioned in this type of dialogical/existential mode for the Christian knower coram Deo (‘before God’). Gannon writes (at length):

Religio and Pietas

The very beginning of the Institutes commences in a statement concerning that which constitutes true wisdom, to wit, that wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Some theologians have argued that this first statement is actually the entire point of the Institutes, a contestable, but not entirely meritless, claim.

It is perhaps customary in our technological age to think of knowledge as a purely apprehensive or propositional enterprise—we have knowledge of this object, or that thing, or such-and-such a set of data. The key to preserving Calvin’s doctrine of knowledge (cognitione), however, is to see it as something much fuller and more “holistic.” In sum, to truly know God is to love him. Theological knowledge is not merely propositional in nature or a matter of mere intellectual assent (assensus). Rather, it must also be experiential, stemming from love that also manifests itself in adoration, trust, fear, and obedience to God. Edward Dowey, for example, refers to Calvin’s concept of knowledge, as “existential knowledge.” The idea of coming to God merely in mind is an utterly foreign concept throughout the Calvinian corpus. Further, Calvin (like Luther) alludes to the nonsensical nature of conceiving of God as a mere object of knowledge.

Calvin uses the terms religio and pietas which, unfortunately, do not translate well into our English words, religion and piety, both of which tend to connote merely a system of ecclesiology or perfunctory, external religious observance. Both words in the Latin, however, denote something much deeper. Re-ligio derives from re, “again” and ligere, “to literally means “careful,” the opposite of negligens. Religio, then, means something more along the lines of “careful attention to” and to be “rebound.” Pietas, while often suggesting merely “dutifulness,” is better understood as “dutiful kindness,” stemming from the Latin root pius (literally, “kind”). Thus, pietas is friendly obedience toward the things of God. It is the perfect opposite of animosity toward godly things—to find oneself welcoming of, and delighting in, his or her Creator.

Calvin, characteristically never wanting to be misunderstood but always desiring clarity for his readers, defines religio as, “confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.” On the other hand, pietas is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.” Expounded here is something rather far removed from trajectories that find natural theology as their starting point—the idea of an irrefragable knowledge of God garnered apart from reverence and revelation, that is, a special and specific Word from God. Rather, Calvin speaks of the first step of pietas being, “to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom.”

That true knowledge of God cannot be torn asunder from pietas and religio means, then, that overly-philosophical speculation about the essence or substance of God is necessarily ruled out. Calvin derides such pursuits as “Epicurean,” as “frigid speculations,” and admonishes us rather to seek out “what things are agreeable to his nature.”[1]

Personally this resonates with me deeply; which is why Murphy’s chapter is so apropos in a book with the title Evangelical Calvinism. It is this embodied way of knowing God, by loving God that represents the proper kind of ‘pure religion’ and piety that Jesus himself claims sums up all of the Law and Prophets:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[2]

What this Calvinian mode towards knowledge of God kicks against, ironically, is any approach that would attempt to know God through discursive reasoning, or philosophical abstraction. What Calvin’s approach admonishes us to is to approach God through God in Christ en concreto (specific); through the realization that genuine knowledge of God is never an abstract academic endeavor, it always entails the particular and scandalous approach to God that only comes through the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world. In other words, genuine religion and piety,  relative to the Christian, involves a committed and lively relationship with God; but one that is not initiated by humans in abstraction, instead one that is unilaterally provided for by the initiation and election of God in Christ. Some might consider this relational way for conceiving of knowledge of God as foolish and weak; but so goes the way of the Gospel.

What this all avoids is presenting a knowledge of God that is rooted, again, in philosophical speculation and even what counts today, most, as what it means to do good Christian evangelical theology. What we want to avoid, which Dag Hammarskjöld so eloquently describes is a presentation of a knowledge of the faith that in the end is perceptibly empty by the discerning and reflective human Christian or even non-Christian would-be knower. Note Hammarskjöld: “‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.[3] If we follow Calvin’s lead, according to Gannon, we won’t be ‘driven into outer darkness’ when coming to know God in Christ; instead because of union and participation in and from life in Christ we will be “irresistibly” drawn deeper and deeper into the winsome and ineffable inner life of God, in Christ, wherein an effervescent and luminous knowledge of God’s life, by experience (properly understood), will be ever increasing and ever inviting.

Leaving on a Personal Note

I honestly do not think this is the approach people in the 21st century evangelical church, particularly in North America and the West, are being provided with. Instead, contra Calvin, what folks are being fed is a pablum of religio and pietas that come in that name only. In other words, people are being encouraged, if they want to press deep into God, to engage with God from a philosophical and ‘natural’ approach to him. What makes this hard for folks to discern is that so much of what they are being fed has been conflated and couched in a Christian (i.e. Reformed) heritage that has this type of heart-warmed-over affectionate “piety” associated with it; but when that person digs deeper into the intellectual framework that is funding this “piety” what in fact they will find is a highly philosophical apparatus for knowing God that has more to do with the classical Philosophers of ancient Greece than it does with God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

It seriously agitates me that this is what counts as engaging with God for the evangelical Christian today. I blame institutions such as The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, and other associations of evangelicals for much of this; i.e. at least as this is making its way into the broader community of evangelical Christians in North America. We need to return to the sources, ad fontes, truly; but may that be understood to be genuinely rooted in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ alone. May that be understood to be grounded in an actual framework that genuinely is relational and personal, and works from the “foundation” that the Triune God is indeed ‘the ground and grammar’ of all things; particularly and mostly of knowledge of Godself.

[1] Gannon Murphy, Pietas, Religio, and the God Who Is, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2012), 159-60.

[2] NASB.

[3] See Jason Goroncy’s post, On Empty Talk About Faith, accessed 05-16-2017.

Providing Some Theological Correction for John Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance: From Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2

I think I am going to start doing some posts that refer to our just released book Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion; in other words, I will share particular quotes from particular chapters, and do what I do as a blogger: reflect and
engage with that material. In this post I will briefly engage with something I wrote in my personal chapter for the book entitled: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ.’ In my chapter I offer a constructive critique of Calvin’s doctrine of assurance of salvation, while also constructively picking up on the themes within it that indeed fit well with the type of Christ concentrated/conditioned understanding of all things that Evangelical Calvinism is becoming known;  particularly, of course, as we rely on Barth and Torrance for much of our theological impulses. In our volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book Myk Habets and I co-wrote a chapter wherein we offered 15 theological thesis that he and I see as the kind of touchstone contours of thought that we see as definitive for our style of EC thinking. One of those was that we believe, along with John Calvin, that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith. My chapter in this new volume 2 actually takes a critical look at that through critique offered by the theological soundings present in Barth’s and Torrance’s theological offerings.

That said, part of the critique I made of Calvin on this front gets into Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation, and how he deploys the absolutum decretum. This doctrine, and the way Calvin’s kind of asymmetrical understanding of election and reprobation functions is the point at which I conclude that Calvin’s theological superstructure can’t really support his laudable thesis that assurance is the essence of saving faith. So I critique him on that front, and then contructively help him along through the theological categories of Barth and Torrance; with particular focus on the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. But in critique of Calvin I actually appeal to a critique that Steve Holmes made of Calvin on Calvin’s doctrine of assurance and reprobation and temporary faith. Here’s the quote I quoted from Holmes on this in my chapter:

The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached, Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ—so different from the caricature so often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words . . . the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

And I write, just following this quote from Holmes in my chapter:

For Holmes, Calvin is so enamored with the positive aspect of election for the elect of God in Christ, that reprobation, as a doctrine, really has little or no place in the theology of Calvin.20 Holmes believes this is further exacerbated when attempting to provide assurance for weary souls, because, as Holmes writes, “the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when he speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7–9)….”[2]

In brief, the problem for Calvin, and for anyone who holds to a classical doctrine of double predestination, is that assurance of salvation will indeed be elusive for the weary soul. If Christ only reveals the positive side of predestination, election, and not the negative side, reprobation, then we end up with some serious issues in regard to giving an account for assurance of salvation. In Calvin’s mind the elect could look to the decree, to Christ, and see him as the mirror of election for them; but of course, as we leave off with reference to Holmes’ critique of Calvin, Calvin also had the concept of ‘temporary faith’ operative in his theology, coupled with the idea that reprobation was hidden back in the secret decree of God (unlike his doctrine of election which was revealed, according to Calvin, in Christ). If someone could “look” elect, but only have a temporary ineffectual faith, and if reprobation was not accounted for positively in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, then it becomes clear how anxiety for folks could remain; and it did.

These are the areas I critique Calvin of; I use Holmes and Barth. But I don’t leave off there, and of course I offer more development and substantiation for my critique of Calvin on this front in the chapter. After a description of Calvin’s understanding of reprobation/election and its implications towards assurance of salvation, I get into Barth’s and Torrance’s theology as a helper and constructive course correction for Calvin. I point up Barth’s reification of the classical doctrine of election/reprobation, and then how Torrance also develops that; I show, in contrast to Calvin’s doctrine here, how they have the resources to actually offer a real doctrine of assurance precisely at the point where Calvin’s doctrine is less than laudable: i.e. when we start talking about election and reprobation.

I don’t leave off with a negative note in regard to Calvin though; I show how he offered a properly Christ concentrated mode of theology in other areas of his theology, particularly when that came to his double grace and union with Christ conceptions of salvation and Christology.

Anyway, maybe this will whet your appetite enough to go and buy our book. If not I’ll share stuff from other chapters in order to give you all a feel for what to expect. Our authors really did bring a set of stellar contributions to make this volume 2 the outstanding work that I think it is.

[1] Holmes, Listening To The Past, 129–30 in Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ’,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017), 39.

[2] Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith,” 39-40.

Reading Scripture with Calvin and the Inevitability of Theological Exegesis for All

The following is a post I wrote many years ago now; it’s rather short and to the point, but it’s about a very important thing that continues to remain a problem johncalvinsickbedfor many a Christian. It can be a very positive thing once the Christian Bible reader can be humble enough, and/or critical enough to come to recognize the inevitable reality that it is. What I am referring to is the reality of theological exegesis; we all do it, and it has been done ever since the Patristic beginning (meaning the theology that was developed in the so called ecumenical councils; the theology we consider orthodox today relative to the Trintarian and Christological grammar we employ as Christians). The following post broaches this topic once again, I can only hope that if you don’t realize that the way you read Scripture comes from a particular theological tradition, that in fact you will indeed come to realize that you do in fact read Scripture from a particular theological tradition[s]. Here’s what I had to say, appealing to John Calvin, back some time ago.

. . . Calvin, like the other reformers, understood that scripture could not stand without a framework of intepretation. And that framework ultimately supported his theological conclusions. This was precisely how it worked in Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic churches of the sixteenth century.[1]

I have recently been in a dialogue with a guy who clearly loves the Lord. We have been discussing the idea that God is the Gospel. This idea actually troubles this fellow, “that God is the Gospel,” he has said:

I’ve been going over this and talking it over with people. I am unwilling to say that God is the gospel. The gospel is the proclamation of the saving redemptive work of Christ. That is the way scripture defines the word “gospel”. It’s very specific. To go beyond that is to go beyond the teaching of scripture, the way scripture defines the term for us and I am unwilling to go there.

The reasons supporting the phrase “God is the gospel” presented so far are not based on exegesis of scripture, but rather on philosophical reasoning. In fact I find the reasoning to be specious. By the same reasoning one might conclude that God is the author of sin. Logic would lead us to believe that was true if we were not fenced in by the limits of scripture.

For this gentleman, the Gospel is strictly a verb, and is not a subject too — which it is. Not to digress, but to illustrate, in contemporary ways, the importance of Calvin’s own approach to scripture. That is, part of interpretation is to recognize that we are indeed interpreting. And that it is okay, and necessary, to go deep into the inner logic and implication of scriptures’ own assumptions. Calvin was aware of the fact that we all have grids of interpretation that we bring to the text, and part of this “spiraling” process of interpreting scripture is to allow scripture and Christ’s life to impose its own categories of thought upon our preconceptions.

In our case, with the fellow I mention above, if he realized that even his desire to read scripture in the way that he does (rather “woodenly”), is in fact a consequence of his prior commitment to an interpretive framework; then he would quickly realize that “his commitment” itself is not “scripture.” That his interpretive paradigm in fact — and I think this is safe to say — is resting on a certain philosophical arrangement that, unfortunately, is unbeknownst to this well intending brother in Christ.

 

[1] Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 108.

 

John Calvin in His Commentaries on Christocentricity [3]

Here is John Calvin commenting on Colossians 1:15:

The sum is this — that God in himself, that is, in his naked majesty, is invisible and that not to the eyes of the body merely, but also to the calvinpostageunderstandings of men, and that he is revealed to us in Christ alone, that we may behold him as in a mirror. For in Christ he shews us his righteousness, goodness, wisdom, power, in short, his entire self. We must, therefore, beware of seeking him elsewhere, for everything that would set itself off as a representation of God, apart from Christ, will be an idol.[1]

And on Philippians 2:6:

. . . As, then God is known by means of his excellences, and his works are evidences of his eternal Godhead, (Rom. I. 20,) so Christ’s divine essence is rightly proved from Christ’s majesty, which he possessed equally with the Father before he humbled himself. As to myself, at least, not even all devils would wrest this passage from me — inasmuch as there is in God a most solid argument, from his glory to his essence, which are two things that are inseparable.[2]

Two eloquent statements, by Calvin, on (a.) Positive Theology, so that “knowledge of God” is limited to Christ alone — and not searching around for other “[sophist]icated” ways to talk about God (all you conceptually oriented scholastics out there). And (b.) on the relationship between the ontological/immanent nature of God, and the‘evangelical’/economic nature of God. Calvin believed that the ‘works and miracles’ (“his glory”) are the external and univocal expression of His eternal being perichoretically united to the Father and the Holy Spirit. In other words, Calvin didn’t think that there was “a God behind the back of Jesus;” but that who Christ revealed Himself to be, was the ‘exact representation’ and externalization of the coinhering glory (Jn. 17) that He has always shared with the Father by the communion of the Holy Spirit. So as John the Evangelist records Jesus saying:

If ye had known me, ye also should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. 8. Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. 9. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, shew us the Father? 10. Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. 11. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake. John 14:7-11 KJV

This is all Calvin is getting at. When we do theology, when we work in the realm of “Christian epistemology,” we are strictly limited to doing Christology. If we want to know what the Father is like, if we want to talk about what God is like; then we are limited to looking at Jesus for all the proper boundaries and emphases that He wants us to know. Calvin would probably be appalled to see how his name has been applied to an theological methodology that has gone astray from this narrow framing provided by Calvin in his commentaries.

 

[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, trans. John Pringle, 150.

[2] Ibid., 56.

[3] Originally posted at another blog in 2010.

 

What Does the Practical Syllogism [assurance of salvation] Have to Do With Modern Theology’s Turn-to-the-Subject?

For people concerned about such things—I haven’t come across anyone who seems to be for a long time now, which normally I would think is a good thing, but I’m afraid that the reason despairwhy is not for a good reason—the doctrine of assurance of salvation and certainty about one’s eternal destiny has a long pedigree in the history of the church’s ideas. If you are someone who has struggled with this, and would like to get a handle on where it came from in the history of ideas, then this post is for you (there’s also a twist to this post as the title suggests).

It all started, it can be surmised, back in the days of late medieval and early reformational theology; an apparatus known as the practical syllogism came to the fore, and is what Protestant’s appealed to in an attempt to grasp a sense of certitude about whether or not they were one of the elect of God. It starts early on in the Protestant genesis, and maturates in unhealthy ways as we get into Puritan England, particularly in the theology of William Perkins. Stephen Strehle provides a type of genealogy for the development of the practical syllogism.

Deducing Salvation

The practical syllogism began to be sure much like the doctrine of eternal security, looking to ascertain one’s election a posteriori from its “signs” or “marks.” However, this time instead of focusing upon the promises of God as revealed in Christ, the concentration shifted toward the faith and works of those who would obtain and partake of those promises. The faith and works of one’s salvation experience became signs through which a true believer could discern his relationship to Christ’s promises and his election before the Father. It was all a simple deduction: “Every one that believes is the child of God: But I doe beleeve: Therefore I am the child of God.” This practical syllogism became a significant feature in most accounts of the Reformed orthodox and unfortunately turned the faith of the church away from Christ and toward an inspection of oneself and the fruits of true salvation.

The precise history of the doctrine is not so clear, although we do find certain theologians of note who were influenced in its publication and help us to trace its development. Calvin as we have noted is not a party to this as his focus remains centered upon Christ and his promises throughout his works. While he might at certain points speak of works as providing some assistance to a troubled conscience, they are considered only secondary means of consolation, and generally when he looks at himself Calvin finds nothing but despondency and condemnation. Theodore de Beza, who succeeded Calvin at Geneva, did tend, however, to reverse this order and must be considered prominent in the initial dissemination of the doctrine. He speaks of the practical syllogism a few times in his works, maintaining that it is the “first step” by which we progress toward the “first cause” of our salvation. While it is not a major emphasis of his, just the mere mention of it in his works is all that was needed. His very stature as the only theological professor at Geneva from 1564-1600 and practically all Reformed Europe for that matter would insure its place in the Reformed tradition, along with the rest of his Aristotelian (non-Christocentric) program, as we shall see later. As far as other important figures, Jerome Zanchi, a theologian from Strasbourg and disciple of Calvin, must also be accorded his place in the ascent and prevalence of the doctrine, perhaps providing an even earlier inspiration from Beza. He supplies in his works a syllogistic argument that displays the same basic structure of Beza’s and orthodoxy’s formulation but without supplying the specific name (indicating an early date). He then exhorts the believer to look within, not without, to find Christ working. Zanchi will prove to exert a major influence not only in Europe but especially in England among the Puritans where the doctrine will receive its most protracted and painstaking treatment. The Calvinists will hereafter speak of faith and certitude as involving a “serious exploration of oneself,” a “reflexive act” in which “faith in one self is felt,” and an inner knowledge of what one “feels and believes.” All of this resulted, of course, as they forsook the Christocentric orientation of Calvin for Aristotle, as well as the sacramental basis of personal assurance in Luther, which we had emphasized earlier. The quest for certitude had now devolved into an introspective life from which only depravity and uncertainty could be found, as well as a calculus, deduced from a more general promise and the Christ who made it, both of which seemed strangely at a distance. The Puritans, as we said, serve as the most notable example of this turn and should be accorded special mention in the study of assurance. In contrast to the perfunctory manner in which many of the Calvinists treated the doctrine, often reserving a mere page or two in otherwise prodigious tomes, the Puritans produced numerous and voluminous treatises upon the doctrine, considering it to be the most pressing of all religious issues.[1]

Anyone familiar with Richard Muller’s writings will immediately recognize the critique he would make against Strehle’s development; particularly the idea that Beza, contra Calvin, took Reformed theology into Aristotelian and philosophical modes of thought. I myself am critical of Strehle’s idea that Calvin was purely Christocentric when it comes to this issue; in fact in my forthcoming chapter in our EC2 book, I argue, along with Barth and others, that Calvin actually contributed to a non-Christocentric trajectory when dealing with this particular issue of assurance of salvation.

But none of the above withstanding, in a general way Strehle provides a faithful accounting, in my view, for how the practical syllogism developed and made its way into Puritan theology. What I would like to suggest, though, is that this development, this turn to the self, it could be argued at an intellectual-heritage level, contributed to the modern turn to the subject that is often, at least theologically, attributed to the work of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kelly Kapic sketches Schleiermacher, and his interlocutors this way:

The genius of Schleiermacher’s system is that he takes his anthropological emphases and pulls his entire theology through this grid. Arguably this creates an anthropocentric theology, since he consciously grounds his methods in human experience. This understandably provoked many questions. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), a one-time student of Schleiermacher, later turned this perspective on its head, concluding that there really is no theology at all, since it is all ultimately reducible to anthropology. God is nothing more than the projection of human desires and feelings, but not a reality in itself. Nodding in Schleiermacher’s direction, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer later commented that “theological anthropocentrism is always a more serious danger than secular anthropocentrism, since we, from the very meaning of theology, might expect that it would not misunderstand man as centrum.” Karl Barth, especially in his younger years, also chastened Schleiermacher with his famous quip: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,” since doing so means you will misunderstand both God and man. Finally, Paul Tillich worried that Schleiermacher’s language and emphasis on “feeling,” which he admits was commonly misunderstood, nevertheless contributed to the exodus of men from German churches.  Although this appears to me an unfair charge to level against Schleiermacher, it is fair to say that his proposal to orient all religion, and consequently the truth of theology, to Gefühl does widen the canvas on which theological anthropology will be painted by including more than rationality and will as the core of being human.[2]

It might seem like a stretch to suggest that the type of theology produced by someone like Schleiermacher, or moderns in general, can be attributed by antecedent to what we see developed in the theologies that produced something like the practical syllogism, but I don’t think it is too big of a stretch. I see at least a couple of links: 1) there is an informing anthropology where anthropology starts from a philosophical starting point rather than a Christian Dogmatic one. In other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, for Beza and Scheiermacher alike is not the ground for what it means to be a human at a first-order level, as such within this abstraction, even from the get go, there is of necessity a turn to the human subject as its own self-defining terminus; i.e. there is not external ground by which humanity can be defined in this frame, instead it is humanity as absolute (obviously at a second order after-this-fact level, Beza, Schleiermacher, et al. then attempt to bring Christ’s humanity into the discussion). 2) There is a methodological focus on a posteriori discovery in regard to knowing God and knowing self before God in practical syllogism theology as well as turn to the subject theology (pre-modern and modern respectively). This in and of itself is not problematic, per se, but it is problematic when informed antecedently by an anthropology that is, at a first order level, detached from Jesus Christ’s humanity as definitive. Again, if humans start with a general sense of humanity devoid of the humanity of Christ as its primal ground, and attempt to know God and place themselves before God from that starting point there are devastating consequences. One of the primary consequences is that all theologizing from that point on, coram Deo, must start epistemologically and ontologically, from below; i.e. from my humanity, from your humanity. At the end of all of  this we end up with a rationalizing affect that colors the way we attempt to negotiate our standing and understanding with and before God.

So What?

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both modern theologians,  sought to invert and flip turn-to-the-subject theology on its head by thinking from truly Christian Dogmatic taxis (or ‘order’). Torrance made a special point of emphasizing how an order-of-being must come before and order-of-knowing; in other words, the idea that God’s being precedes our being, and that all conditions for knowing God and thus self (cf. Calvin) must start within this frame and order of things. I.e. There is no general or abstract sense of humanity, if we are going to have genuine knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world, then we must start with the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ. Barth, in his own ways, makes these same points, particularly by flipping Immanuel Kant on his head, and as a consequence flipping Schleiermacher on his.

I would contend that Western society, in general, still is living out what this turn-to-the-subject has meant for society at large. In fact, in the 21st century we see this type of turn in hyper-form; we might want to call it normative relativism. Ideas do have consequences, as such I think getting an idea of where they come from can help us engage those ideas critically; and when needed we are in a better position to repudiate and/or reify ideas that might ultimately be deleterious to our souls.

What I have suggested in this post remains quite general, and some would say reductionistic; but I think there is something to what I’m getting at. Since this is a blog post, and a long one, it will have to simply remain at the level of suggestion.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 37-41.

[2] Kelly M. Kapic, “Anthropology,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 192 Scribd version.

Assurance of Salvation in Martin Luther, with Reference to Barth and Torrance. ‘I absolve you!’

Myk Habets and I have edited our volume two Evangelical Calvinism book due out in the early half of 2017. My personal chapter in that volume is on John Calvin’s, Karl Barth’s, and Thomas Torrance’s doctrine of assurance of salvation. This topic has always been of luther_martin-3interest to me, at one point it was something I struggled with; and I’ve known others (who are very close to me) who have struggled with this as well. Currently, I’m not really sure many evangelicals struggle with this anymore; mostly, I would suggest, because of the kind of superficiality present in most evangelical churches today when it comes to actual doctrine and doctrinal understanding or interest (and I’m including the leadership levels as well). That said, the rest of this post will be dealing with this ancient doctrine; we will have particular focus on how this doctrine functioned in the thought and theology of Martin Luther.

Luther, as so many know, was an Augustinian monk; to say he was devout and driven would be an understatement. He, not unlike many in his day, struggled deeply with assurance of salvation. Because of the teaching of the medieval Roman Catholic church people could never really know with certainty if they had done enough penance and engaged in enough heartfelt contrition to know if they were right with God; the result was that people languished with a sense of doubt and fear before a perceived wrathful God. It was this framework Luther was succored in as a monk, indeed it was the air he breathed his whole life; and he was tormented.

Without getting into Luther’s whole biography, and theological antecedents, suffice it to say Luther needed a way out; he needed an assuaged conscience before God. He became a monk with the goal of finding such consolation; but would he find it? As most of us know, yes, indeed, Luther did think he found it; but as many of us might not know he didn’t find it by abandoning his Catholic medieval framework of thought, instead he found it afresh as he read the New Testament for himself. Luther came to realize that he could only stand before God by trusting God’s Word, by standing by faith with the understanding that the righteousness of God wasn’t something he could muster up, instead it was an ‘alien righteousness’ external to Luther and all humanity found in Christ. With this new found insight Luther reified the Catholic penitential system by grounding it in a theology of God’s Word, and understanding that as the priest spoke absolution over people it was in actuality the Word of God itself. Luther was finally able to find certainty of standing before God, not by cooperating with God in penance, or by mustering up heartfelt contrition, but by looking to the cross of Jesus Christ itself; by knowing that the righteousness he needed before God was not latent in him, but explicit in Jesus Christ. Stephen Strehle explains all of this for us this way:

Luther, the founder of the Protestant doctrine, often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts—a righteousness that was a veritable “cesspool and delightful kingdom of the devil.” Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but despair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were too great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness. His experience was thus filled with fear, doubt, and torment, and his concept of Catholicism became slanted accordingly, as he imputed those anxieties to the church’s own teachings and practice.

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament along a direction other than the one that we have just witnessed. Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest. The priest’s role after all is said to bring comfort to those who are shackled with anguish over their sins. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther.[1]

Strehle gives a sense of how Luther reified assurance of salvation; placing the referent for “certitude” no longer in self, but in Jesus Christ. In my view what Luther did serves only as a first step; he needs to be taken further.

Just as with Calvin, Luther offers pregnant contours of thought that are weighted with a Christ concentration just waiting for further development. I contend that that type of development is exactly what we’ve been given in the theologies of Barth and Torrance. Here’s what I mean with reference to a Barthian development. Here Barth offers critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election and assurance; while Luther was different than Calvin in some important ways (especially in the early Luther we just had elucidated for us by Strehle), the Christ-direction that Barth takes this would equally serve Luther just as well as it serves Calvin. Barth writes:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

The moral is the Word of God. What is missing, in an explicit way, in both Calvin and Luther is a focus on the vicarious humanity of Christ. We see the lineaments of that in both of them at important points, but not in explicit ways. For Barth, as for Torrance, the word of absolution that Luther found in the priest’s words, were actually first spoken by God over the humanity of Jesus Christ, for us. As we are in union with Christ and his vicarious humanity, the ground of our assurance isn’t found from the lips of a priest, or pastor, they are found in the very Word of God Himself; we look directly and thus not indirectly to Christ. The mediation isn’t through sacraments, it is directly given through Christ; the mediation isn’t through decrees, it is directly through Jesus Christ. We look to Christ.

Martin Luther and John Calvin, as noted, provided a very fruitful and rich trajectory; Barth and Torrance stood on their shoulders (and other’s), and took it straight to the heavenlies in Christ. Assurance isn’t a concept, it isn’t something we generate; it’s Jesus Christ.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 8-10.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.